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The Challenges in Managing Diversity & Inclusion

The concepts of diversity, inclusion and equality are becoming more and more widespread in everyday language both within and outside of the business world. In terms of its definition, Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) may be a rather fluid concept, but at its very core it is about empowering, respecting and appreciating individual differences. However, it is important to note that diversity and inclusion are not interchangeable as concepts. Diversity refers to the ways in which individuals differ from each other – these can be both visible and non-visible factors, ranging from gender and race to personality and cognitive diversity. Inclusion refers to the involvement and empowerment of all these different individuals – that is, everyone.

Unconscious biases and the complexity of D&I

A common topic in the D&I discussion is the emergence of unconscious biases and how to manage them. Unconscious biases are automatic, quick judgments and assessments we make of people and situations, influenced by our background, cultural environment and personal experiences. It is our innate drive to understand and make sense of ourselves, others, and the world around us, and this can sometimes lead us into thinking we know more than we actually do. Due to these unconscious biases – which are an inevitable part of human nature and embedded into our decision making – D&I can be a challenging topic to manage as it requires getting out of one’s comfort zone and being open to questioning the status quo. However, I believe there has been growing level of interest in understanding the bigger picture and the broader advantages of valuing the magnitude and complexity of differences in individuals – the differences in personalities, perspectives, life experiences and thinking styles that, if managed efficiently, can all add to the creative ideas, productivity and overall success of an organisation.

Diversity issues represent some of the most complex dynamics in the modern organisation, but the awareness of these can significantly improve workplace performance and relationships. Nevertheless, the efforts to promote diversity have often been ineffective. Research has found that dealing with diversity ineffectively can subsequently lead to poor communication and teamwork and further to segregation and intolerance within groups, in other words, to exclusion. This is why it is important to challenge ourselves to find not only efficient but, most importantly, authentic ways to deal with diversity. Although it can be relatively easy for organisations to increase its diversity in numbers, it should be noted that there is no evidence of causation when it comes to inclusion – diversity will not automatically increase the organisation’s social inclusion. Additionally, merely hiring diverse talent does not guarantee its retention.

Inclusion and psychological safety

In recent times, there has been more emphasis on focusing on the importance of inclusion, as opposed to diversity. Ideally, in order to the organisation (or a group of any kind) to utilise its diversity to its maximum potential, the individuals will all feel included and thus motivated to bring their full potential to work and further bring their unique contributions to the organisation’s objectives. Therefore, the transformation, or the bridge, between diversity and inclusion involves accepting and valuing different views and behaviours, adapting to other ways of communicating, and further building on the benefits of diverse and inclusive environment. Again, this can also bring its challenges and it is important for leaders to manage any conflict of personalities or creative tensions that can result from the inherent differences within the team. The leaders need to ensure they influence others to value individual differences, big or small, and, most importantly, to make sure they accommodate each individual in a way that all the diverse perspectives, cultures and personalities are being heard. For the diverse teams to flourish, they need to be in a climate of psychological safety, a term coined by Amy Edmondson, defined as “a shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking”. In other words, it is about each individual having the confidence to take risks and express new ideas without fear of embarrassment. This is another important aspect of D&I that leaders need to be aware of and lead by example by bringing transparency and authenticity into their organisation.  

Journey of continuous change

Notably, research shows that when diversity efforts focus more on visual identities such as race, gender, age or disability, without addressing the more implicit differences such as personalities, values, perspectives, or attitudes , it may actually hold back development of inclusive environments by overemphasising differences rather than similarities. It is important to understand that there is no quick fix to inclusiveness and it should not be a specific or tangible goal to try to achieve, but instead a continuous journey that fluctuates with the changes as we learn and evolve. It is the individual themselves who is ultimately not only responsible but also capable of learning and expanding their capacity to deepen their awareness of their own differences – and similarities – and those of others and see the ultimate benefits of a diverse and inclusive environment. Furthermore, by increasing their awareness, the individual should have the ability to respond and adapt to their environment mindfully, rather than out of habit.